[Book Extract] The English Teacher, by John Eppel


George’s duties as a domestic worker began promptly at 6 a.m. or sparrow fart, in the local idiom. The madam expected, nay demanded, her coffee, white with six sugars, and a plate of vetkoek. The ritual was for George to place the tray on the carpet outside madam’s bedroom door, knock gently and say, “Coffee, Madam!” Then he would tiptoe back to the kitchen and start preparing breakfast for the family: the three children and Beauticious, and, occasionally, the Minister of Child Welfare, Sweets and Biscuits. George quite liked the Minister because he always tipped him with a middle-of-the-range bearer’s cheque. “Yes, umfaan, he would say, go buy yourself some laces for your tackies.”

“Don’t spoil the boy!” Beauticious would retort. The Minister would chuckle and take another bite of his Colcom pork sausage with scrambled egg and baked beans. “Joji, more coffee for the boss; and enza lo ma toast, checha!”

“Yes, Madam.”

In the early days of his servitude George spent much of his life feeling mortified. The chipped enamel tin mug for his fifteen-minute mid-morning left-over coffee break, which he shared with Joseph, sitting on upturned wooden crates in the back yard outside the kitchen door was bad enough; so was the forty minute lunch break with its thick slice of yesterday’s bread (when available), and mixed fruit jam, washed down with tea dregs; but worst of all was the uniform Beauticious compelled him to wear. Gone, except on Sundays, were the powder blue safari-suits of his school-teaching days; gone were his light brown Grasshoppers, with socks from Woolworths; gone (Oh dear, George) was his beloved floppy hat, which he wore to umpire inter-school cricket matches. Beauticious made him wear khaki shirt and shorts, the former much too small, the latter much too large. His head-wear was a tasselled red fez while his footwear was white tackies (though Beauticious didn’t mind if he went barefoot). But time heals as it destroys, and habit, time’s cicatrice, had inured George to the shame of his new role. After all, wasn’t it Nell in Endgame who said “nothing is funnier than unhappiness”? And when George caught his reflection in one of the madam’s many mirrors scattered about the house, he had to smile.

“Ipi lo toast, Joji? Lo boss yena funa hamba sebenza. Aziko time!”

“Sorry Madam, the power has just gone. I’ll have to use the outside fire.”

“No ZESA, no fuel, no food. Who is responsible, Joji?”

All five faces at the formica table looked at him expectantly. “We are, Madam: the British, the Europeans, the Americans.”

“You have raped our country barren, Joji. First our women and girls, next our motherland. Shame on you.” The Minister clicked his tongue in sympathy.

“Sorry, Madam.”

“Sorry? What is sorry? It is too late for that word, Joji. By the way, have you been helping yourself to my sugar?”

“No Madam, I-“

“Basop, wena!”

“Sorry… I mean… shall I do the toast on the outside fire?

“Yes, and be quick about it. Checha, checha! Fuga steam, Joji!”

Beauticious was just one of the Minister’s numerous mistresses. He kept a lady in all the major towns of Zimbabwe, set up in what is quaintly known as small houses. His big house, a mansion on several sprawling acres of prime land in Harare’s Borrowdale suburb, was occupied by his wife and his seven legitimate children. The Minister, like all men of great power in Africa (and the world for that matter) had broadcast his seed far and wide. Recently he had been venturing, incognito, into the NGO world. Fruitful pickings there, he had been advised by the boys in his recently (and unfairly) relegated football team, the Black Bustards. Go to the Zambesi Bar, they advised him, and feed your mamba till it regurgitates. The Germans are the easiest; it helps them deal with their Nazi complexes. Why, one intombi took on the entire football team as well as the coach. Just ask for intethe.

Beauticious was the Minister’s favourite; hence the custom-built Mercedes Benz, the immediate cause of George’s downfall. Only his wife, Cushion, did better in the vehicle department, terrorising the cyclists and pedestrians of Harare in her beetle black Hummer with mounted machine gun and a place to hold a can of coke. All his other mistresses, those he had set up in small houses, in Mutare, Masvingo, Gweru, Gwanda, and Kwe Kwe, drove Mitsubishi Pajeros — all at 40 kilometers per hour.

It was time for the children to attend school, and George handed them their packed lunches, which he had prepared before breakfast. To supplement this wholesome food, their mother gave them, every school day, the equivalent of George’s monthly wage to spend on junk at the tuck shop. George rather enjoyed driving the children to and from school. It took him away, briefly, from the drudgery of never-ending household chores, though he was always fearful of being seen by one of his erstwhile colleagues, to hear one of them crow “how are the mighty fallen” (even though they didn’t read the Bible) or “here comes Johnny head-in-air” (even though they had never heard of Heinrich Hoffman).

Breakfast over at last, George washed the dishes (once his property) while Beauticious let her man out of the gate where his chauffer waited for him in a silver-grey Rolls Royce. They waved goodbye to each other, both with cell phones stuck to the sides of their heads like cancerous outgrowths. The Minister was on his way to Gwanda to give support (Parliamentary elections were looming) to the Minister For Medium to Small to Tiny Business Enterprises who was opening a Chinese built, Chinese owned, Chinese food processing factory. Beauticious was chatting to her best friend, Titty, and inviting her over to tea (she loved to parade George in front of her friends), while the Minister was chatting to his Gwanda mistress, Copacabana, and making sure that she would be available for him while he was in her neck of the woods, so to speak.

After washing the breakfast things and leaving them to dry on the rack and on the sink, George turned to the extremely arduous task of doing the laundry. There was no washing machine so it all had to be done manually using bars of smelly blue or yellow soap. George’s hands, now hard as the spines of leathern Bibles, had suffered terribly in the first weeks of washing, rinsing, and ironing the family’s clothes and linen. He would soak a load in the Zinc bath, then item by item (the madam’s scarlet and black thongs shocked him) he would apply soap and then scrub them on a ribbed wooden board until all dirt and nearly all stains had been removed. Then he would rinse the soap out of them, and hang them on the clothes line to dry. He used an assortment of plastic and wooden clothes pegs to keep them from falling to the ground. Hercules and Ajax, since there was nothing to kill, would keep him company.

So would the birds, the doves in particular. The laughing kind were resident; the red-eyed turtle kind were occasional visitors. George couldn’t get over the way they walked so that their heads bobbed like the cork floats he used as a boy, fishing for bream and barbel at Mtshelele Dam in the Matopos, his favourite spot in the world (what world, George?). He had a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, so he worried that the continuous bobbing might give the birds headaches. He attempted to remedy this by dissolving a few grains of aspirin in the bird bath every morning. Not being Doctor Dolittle, he couldn’t ask the creatures if their headaches had eased, but judging by their amorous behaviour towards each other and their aggressive behaviour towards other species, not to mention their voracious appetites, he was optimistic.

It wasn’t the doves that attracted his attention this morning at the washing line; rather it was the antics of a fork-tailed drongo, the only bird in George’s experience that could actually say “Tweet, tweet”. The drongo was perched in one of the few remaining trees in the garden, an Acacia erioloba, which George had germinated from a seed. He recalled pocketing that seed on a camping holiday to Hwange National Park, more than thirty years before (but where, George, where, are the snows of yesteryear?). Below the drongo several African hoopoes ambled about poking their beaks into the ground. Whenever one came up with a worm, the drongo would swoop and take the morsel straight from the hapless hoopoe’s beak. George wondered how the late Florence Partridge might have allegorised this event.

While the washing flapped at his ears and the doves flapped at his feet; while Hercules and Ajax gazed at him with adoring eyes, George sang a medley of songs, songs he’d heard his father sing, and his grandfather before that, and his great grandmother before that.

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go;
Though the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight, comes love’s old song,
Comes love’s o-

“Joji!”

“Madam?”

“Haikona wena iswili mina, Joji?”

“Sorry, Madam.”

“Buya lapa, checha. Lo Missis Titty yena enza visiting lapa gamina. Tina funa lo ma tea na lo ma keks, iswili?”

“Yes Madam, mina… er…I’m coming.”

George took the peg out of his mouth and used it to secure on the wash line a scarlet thong, as small as Davids’s sling. Then he wiped his hands on his apron and hurried in to the house. The power was back so he could use the electric kettle. There were two brands of tea in the grocery cupboard: Five Roses for the Madam and Fresh Leaves (in truth, stalks) Tea for the servants. Fortunately he had baked a batch of cup cakes the day before, so he wouldn’t have to undergo the humiliation of being shouted at in front of a guest. Despite the shortages of groceries in the country, the shops were virtually empty, Beauticious presided over a pantry, which was laden with the choicest of goods, and a deep freeze, which was packed with the best cuts of super grade beef, pork, lamb, and goat; and a dozen plump chickens; and, and, and…. How did she do it? Connections. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?

Beauticious liked to use her, well, George’s maternal grandmother’s, silver tea set, when she had guests. Again fortunately, George had recently polished the items, tray included, and had washed and carefully ironed the beaded lace doilies; so he had high expectations of a little praise.

He was not disappointed. Inkosikazi Titty, speaking simultaneously to her cell phone and to Beauticious, nevertheless gave him a brilliant smile when he handed her a cup of tea with milk and six sugars, and a plate of cup cakes decorated with white icing and hundreds and thousands in five bright colours. The television set was on (it was on all the time) featuring some mid-morning American soap opera. The sound was down, however; instead an elaborate music centre leaked from one of its multiple vents, a strangled voice going on nostalgically about all the girls he’d loved.

“That will do, George, thank you,” said Beauticious after he had handed her tea and cake.

“Thank you, Madam.” He backed out of the dangerously over-furnished lounge wringing his hands and taking extra care not to knock anything over. Then he waited anxiously in the kitchen for the inevitable:

“Joji, futi tea!”

On their way home from school (in the Madam’s second car, a Toyota hilux double cab) Ultimate began to complain about all the homework she had been given: maths, geography, history, biology, and English. George was concentrating on avoiding the new potholes that had formed since the rains had begun, rains that heralded the mother of all agricultural seasons. Traffic was heavy during the lunch hour, so swerving and weaving was dangerous. But he always kept a sympathetic ear open for the children, and he picked up the note of distress in Ultimate’s voice. One of her braids had worked loose and was dangling over her right eye. Or was it her left eye? George couldn’t be sure looking at her reflection in the rear view mirror. He asked her what she had been given for English. It was a Macbeth contextual. They had to discuss the appropriateness of the opening scene.

“Did you know that the witches speak in trochaic tetrameters?”

“I beg yours?”

“You know, strong-weak, strong-weak, strong-weak, strong.”

“What?”

“The metre is incomplete. Catalectic. The final weak syllable is missing”

Ultimate frowned and looked at her brothers for support. She put her forefinger to her temple and made circular motions with it, thus suggesting that George was out of his mind.

But her brothers would have none of it. “Why don’t you ask George to help you with your homework?” said Helter. “Don’t forget he was once an English teacher.”

“But I don’t know what he’s talking about.” She brushed the braid off her face; it soon returned, swinging slightly like an insufficiently weighted pendulum.

“He’ll explain. He’s good at explaining. Ask him?”

“Would you, George?”

“Of course! When is your homework due?”

“First thing tomorrow morning. Mr Sibanda is very strict.”

“Oops, well… that’s going to make it a little difficult. But we can talk in the kitchen if you like; while I’m preparing supper.”

Ultimate’s face brightened. “Great! We can help each other. I’ll peel the potatoes.”

“And I’ll explain the paradoxes.”

“Look out!” cried the twins in unison. George swerved to avoid a pothole that would have broken the Toyota’s suspension. He nearly collided with an oncoming car, which hooted at him and kept on hooting until it was out of hearing. They were all relieved to get home in one piece.

Early that morning George had taken out a chicken to defrost, and he had dried a couple of slices of bread for the stuffing. Ultimate joined him in the kitchen with her copy of Macbeth. “What can I do, George?” she asked. She had managed to return the errant braid to its allotted place, and she was all smiles.

“Why don’t you prepare the vegetables, Miss Ultimate. There are those potatoes and those carrots to peel, and those lovely young green beans to top and tail. Meanwhile I’ll prepare the stuffing for the chicken…”

“Yummy, I love stuffing. What shall I use to peel with?”

George gave her an instrument for stripping the skin off vegetables, and showed her how to use it. Now let’s talk about that scene. How does it begin?”

“Hang on.” She opened her text and found the place:

ULTMATE: When shall we three meet again?

GEORGE: In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

ULTIMATE: When the hurlyburly’s done,

GEORGE: When the battles lost and won.

ULTIMATE: That will be ere the set of sun.

ULTIMATE: Where the place?

GEORGE:                                 Upon the heath.

ULTIMATE: There to meet with Macbeth.

GEORGE: I come. Graymalkin!

ULTIMATE: Paddock calls.

GEORGE: Anon!

TOGETHER: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:

                      Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Ultimate beamed. “How can you say all that without looking at the page?”

“I was an English teacher.”

Ultimate sensed that it would be less than tactful to pursue this line, so she said. “Which vegetable shall I start with?”

“Suit yourself. You’ve got yellow, green, and white. My mother always said that a complete meal should include those three colours. Can you think of another combination?”

“Yes… wait a bit… what about… um… pumpkin… um… rice…”

“And?”

“And… spinach!” She smiled happily.

“That’s it! Well done! Now, how many witches are there?”

“She started on the potatoes. “Three. Like the three vegetables?”

“Yes, but the only thing they’ve got in common is the number three, and that’s the first important point to make about this scene.”

“Why, George?”

“Because, Miss Ultimate, the number three is a universal symbol of good, or at least of order; and Macbeth is a play about the conflict between order and chaos (or disorder).”

“Our teacher said it’s about good versus evil.”

“That’s a more subjective way of putting it.” Ultimate frowned so he added, “You could see good as order and evil as chaos.”

Ultimate relaxed her frown. “But don’t the witches represent evil?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are there three if three is a good number?”

“That’s the point: the devil can assume a pleasing shape. The witches have appropriated the Trinity.” While he talked George squeezed a tube of sausage meat into a bowl. He reduced the dried bread slices to crumbs and added them to the meat. Then he selected an egg from the fridge and plopped it into a jug of water.

“Why are you doing that with the egg?” asked Ultimate who was on her third potato.

“To see if it’s fresh. If it floats it is stale; if it sinks it is fresh. In the olden days that’s how they tested women to see if they were witches.”

“That’s not true, George!”

“It is. If a woman was accused of witchcraft she was thrown into the river. If she floated she was guilty; if she sank, she was innocent.”

“So if she was innocent she drowned?”

“I’m afraid so. Either way the poor woman lost out. If she didn’t drown, they burned her at the stake.”

“That’s so unfair!”

“It is. Life is unfair.” (Easy, George, easy.) Expertly he cracked the egg and, with one hand, emptied it into the bowl.

Ultimate, watching, was impressed: “I have to use both hands.”

“It takes a little practice. He added some dried parsley and sage, some finely chopped onion and garlic, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Ultimate was fascinated by the way he used his fingers as a strainer. Finally he added salt and ground pepper. “Ground black pepper is useful if there are weevils in the food. It camouflages them.”

“Yuk, that’s gross, George!”

“It is, isn’t it? “ He used a fork to mix the ingredients, then he checked to see if the chicken was sufficiently defrosted. The giblets, neck, and feet were in a separate plastic bag inside the bird. He gave a foot each to the dogs, chopped the giblets and mixed them in with the stuffing. He thought about stealing the neck for himself but decided against it. Beauticious missed nothing. “How are you getting on with the spud-bashing?”

“Spud-bashing?”

“Peeling the potatoes. It’s slang.”

“I’m on my fourth.”

“Good. Now let’s get back to your homework. Notice the first line of the play begins with a question. That’s good drama. It creates anticipation in the audience. Notice too that, though the play is entitled Macbeth, and focuses on the character of that name, we don’t see him in the opening scene.”

“He gets mentioned.”

“Yes, he gets mentioned, but we don’t actually see him before scene 3. That’s also good drama.”

“Because the audience can’t wait to see him?”

“Yes. Expectation, anticipation, suspense…. Notice the setting: thunder and lightning, ‘an open place’. The chaotic background is appropriate for these bringers of chaos. That’s a kind of metaphor known as the objective correlative. If the setting is personified in any way you can call it the pathetic fallacy. All these words!”

Ultimate had moved on to the carrots. “I won’t remember any of this for my assignment.”

“Yes you will. Enough.” George was stuffing the chicken, front and back, with his fingers. When it was done he sealed off the back by tucking the ends of the drumsticks into a flap of skin just below the parson’s nose. The front was trickier. Ultimate’s eyes boggled like cotton reels as she witnessed George actually putting stitches in the skin with a needle and thread.

“Can I help you in the kitchen more often, George?”

“You can, and you may, Miss Ultimate. Now, the fishing touch.” He fetched some rashers of fatty bacon from the fridge and draped them over the bird. Carefully he placed it in a clay roaster (with the politically incorrect RHOASTER stamped on the lid), and then turned to the girl: “Would you like to put it in the oven?”

“Okay, but won’t I get burnt?”

“Not if you aren’t a witch.” They both laughed. George made her put on the oven gloves, and talked her through the process. “Careful, the oven is preheated to 180 degrees. Well done! Now you can tell your mother and your brothers that you helped prepare tonight’s dinner.”

“Mom’s still at the gym, and my brothers are glued to the TV.”

“Well, you finish the carrots and I’ll do the beans.”

“You said you would explain the paradoxes in this scene.”

“Oh yes. Well, we’ve already discussed the first one. The witches are wicked but they appear to be good because there are three of them. ‘Appear’ is the key word. The entire play, like all Shakespeare’s plays, is about appearance versus reality or art versus nature. The second paradox is the line ‘When the battles lost and won’. Can you see why?

“You can’t lose and win a battle.”

“In a sense, you can. Macbeth won the battle for Scotland and lost the battle for his soul. Have you heard of a pyrrhic victory?”

“No.”

“Go and fetch your dictionary and we’ll look it up.” While she was out of the kitchen George quickly washed the potatoes and put them in a pot of water, ready for boiling; then he returned to topping and tailing the beans.

She came back slightly breathless, clutching the Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition. This had been one of George’s books, which Beauticious had refused to re-sell to him. “How do you spell it?”

“Eye, tea,”

“No man, George man,” she giggled, “Pyrrhic.”

“Pea, why, are, are, aitch, eye, sea.”

She soon found the word and read out the definition: “’(Of a victory) won at too great a cost to be of use to the victor, [from the name of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC, but sustained heavy losses’].”

“There you are!”

“But look, George, here’s another entry for ‘pyrrhic’: ‘a metrical foot of two short or unaccented syllables-’”

“The opposite of a spondee. Let’s see if we can find any pyrrhics in your opening scene… er… the second line, ‘or in’? What about-”

“’ere the’?”

“Possibly. Yes. Well done, my girl… I mean, Miss Ultimate. You learn quickly.”

“I came first in class last term.”

“I know that. We are all very proud of you.”

“Are there any other paradoxes? I’ve got to go and write this thing up.”

“The most important paradox of all; the focus of the entire play: ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. The witches are foul in appearance but their equivocations are in a sense fair, because Macbeth and Banquo are allowed to make their own choices. Lady Macbeth is fair in appearance but foul behind the scenes. Cawdor did a foul deed when he betrayed Scotland, but he died fair: ‘Nothing in his life / became him like the leaving it’… and so on.”

“What did you mean, in the car, by ‘strong/weak, strong weak/strong/weak’?”

“Oh that! Metre. The witches speak in an opposite rhythm to the human characters, but let’s leave that for another time. My chores are piling up.”

“Thanks, George. Is there anything else I can do in the kitchen?”

George smiled. “No thank you, my dear. You’ve been a great help to me. Better go and do your homework before it’s too late.”

She skipped all the way to her bedroom. George returned to his duties, which would keep him going until knock off time at 8 p.m. — feed the animals, polish the shoes, finish the ironing, scrub the kitchen floor, serve dinner to the family, fold down the bedding…

PARP- PARP. PARP-PARP. PARP-PARP.

The madam was back from gym. Was Joseph around to open the gate, or would he have to run for it?

PARP-PARP. PARP-PARP. PARRRRRRRP!

(c) John Eppel, 2008

The English Teacher is due out shortly from amaBooks.

About the author

John Eppel is an award-winning poet, novelist and short story writer.

His books include the novels, D.G.G. Berry’s The Great North Road ( Carrefour-Hippogriff, 1992); Hatchings (Carrefour, 1993) and The Giraffe Man (Queillerie, 1994).

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